Mayor Alex Morse’s State of the City Address
February 17, 2015
Council President Jourdain, distinguished Councilors, department heads, and my fellow Holyokers: I am honored to speak to you all about the state of this city we love.
None of us in this room tonight got involved in public service because we thought Holyoke’s challenges would be easy to solve. The same is true of all Holyokers who work hard each and every day to improve our community. They know that their efforts are but pieces of our larger Holyoke story.
But Holyokers also understand that anything worth doing requires patience and a willingness to keep trying—no matter the difficulty of the task before us, no matter the voices that have said Holyoke’s best days are past. We all understand that, despite the setbacks of any given moment, we are part of something larger, and that our proud history can help inspire us to seize a better future.
Tonight, I am proud to report that our work is paying off.
We can now see the results of our governing vision—a vision that recognizes the people of Holyoke as the true source of our progress; a vision that sees the government as a partner in people’s efforts for change.
We are building a legacy that will remake the City of Holyoke for generations to come.
Today, we are widely seen to be a community worthy of investment. Our police department’s strategy of community policing has made our streets safer. Our unemployment rate is the lowest it’s been since 2008. In fiscal year ’16, home values will increase between one- and three-percent. Our development of maker-spaces has enabled innovators to collaborate and new ideas to flourish.
Just last month, the national publication Popular Mechanics ranked Holyoke as the number six “startup city” in the nation, honoring our efforts to turn innovators into entrepreneurs. The Commonwealth recently recognized a portion of our Center City as one of only ten “Transformative Districts” in Massachusetts, making us eligible for enhanced state assistance in developing our downtown.
The progress we’ve made is clear. In every aspect of our community life, our expectations have been raised—and with good reason. As we look forward to this new legislative year, let us consider how we got to where we are, and what we must do to ensure continued progress.
When it came to reviving our economy, we decided to change our value proposition. Where we were once the world’s Paper Capital, we have now signaled to the rest of the country that Holyoke is building an economy for the 21st century—an economy driven by technology, innovation, and creativity.
But we also understood that our changing economic identity would benefit from our past. The men and women who built the Paper City left us their own proud legacy. We can see their work all around us—in the canals, the former mill buildings, and the many public investments enabled by years of prosperity. The American economy has changed since those early generations of Holyokers, but the infrastructure they built remains.
So we decided to take advantage of our past. We recognized that our economy would be stronger if we seized the untapped potential of our existing assets and infrastructure. We set out to reuse and remake these historic spaces for the industries of the future. This approach is at the heart of our Urban Renewal Plan and our strategy of the past four years.
We also recognized the need to continue embracing new ideas, supporting local entrepreneurs, and welcoming more and more people who want to be part of what’s happening here. That is how we’ve chosen to govern—to assist in our people’s efforts for change; to see ourselves as a partner. The wisdom of this governing vision lies in the fact that change is not something that happens mainly in City Hall. It is something our people bring to City Hall.
And today, we’re a city that makes things again.
As I mentioned before, our efforts have been widely recognized and praised. Such accolades are not without good reason.
The Green High Performance Computing Center represents an investment of over $100 million in our downtown. Local entrepreneurs and developers have invested upwards of $25 million toward rehabilitating sites in and around the Innovation District, an area that is gradually becoming a prime destination for small businesses.Several new projects are ready, or will soon be ready, for construction: Marcotte Ford will significantly expand its operations on Main Street; the former Holyoke Hotel will become a quality retail destination; and the blighted gas station on Dwight Street will be torn down and rebuilt in much improved form.
More development projects are on the horizon. On your agenda tonight is a petition for a zone change that would allow Gary Rome Auto to expand its business—creating more jobs and generating more tax revenue. In the coming months, I ask that you approve a zone change for the former Lynch School. And given that the city recently acquired the property of the former Geriatric Authority, we have another opportunity to attract development and expand our tax base.
I would like to thank this Council for its unanimous support for a special act to request additional liquor licenses. Because of that vital step, the state has awarded us 13 new licenses. Already, prospective restaurateurs have shown great interest in setting up shop in town, many of whom will be meeting with the City in the coming months.
Later this year, 55 new units of housing at Chestnut Park will be completed, the passenger rail platform will be up and running, and Phase II of the Canal Walk will be finished and open for the public to enjoy.
This is all good news. But economic growth is not an end in itself. We also value fairness. Our growth must be tied to a commitment to expand opportunity and improve quality of life for all Holyokers. In addition to improving our infrastructure and growing our tax base, we should commit ourselves to eliminating structural unemployment in Holyoke in our lifetime.
This can be done.
That’s why, in March, we will see the official launch of SPARK, an entrepreneurship program for all Holyokers. Designed with several community partners—including the Chamber of Commerce Foundation, Holyoke Community College, Nuestras Raices, Career Point, among others—SPARK will provide tools to residents who have sound business ideas and want the chance to start a business right here in Holyoke. The principle behind this initiative is simple: if someone has an idea for a business, they should have a chance to succeed right here in our hometown; they shouldn’t have to look elsewhere.
Another guiding principle should be this: if anyone from Holyoke is looking for a job, they should be able to learn the needed skills for today’s opportunities.
Manufacturing in the Pioneer Valley is healthy and steadily growing. But, with a whole generation of skilled laborers beginning to retire, the test for that industry will be to find quality employees in the coming years. So, in the coming weeks, I will be meeting with local manufacturers to discuss their needs, and to come up with a strategy for using state initiatives aimed at training and hiring workers in that sector. Where there are jobs to be had, we want Holyokers to have them.
The same is true of the already burgeoning creative economy. That’s why, in the coming months, we will see the formation of Holyoke Media, a public access organization that will provide learning opportunities for Holyokers interested in creative professions. Holyoke Media will provide a space for folks to access creative equipment and create content.
And we can’t forget the hospitality and culinary arts industry. Already, this industry is the third largest employer in Western Massachusetts. But the industry needs more employees of all skill levels. For example, restaurants need more cooks. As we gather here tonight, there are approximately 200 line cook positions open and looking, and that doesn’t even account for the need for workers at the MGM gaming complex in Springfield.
In December, we announced that Holyoke Community College would receive a $1.75 million grant from the state to expand the college’s culinary arts and hospitality program. That grant will allow HCC to build a new, state-of-the-art center in downtown Holyoke, doubling the size of the school while adding an associate’s degree to its certificate program. This will make training for this career path available to more of our citizens, and will add vibrancy to the heart of downtown.
In addition to providing Holyokers with the tools they need to start businesses and find jobs, we will continue making wise investments in our future.
First, over the next few months, I will be proposing the creation of a Renewable Energy Development Fund—with grant moneys already identified—in order to stimulate the creation of more renewable energy installations on existing buildings. This measure would not only increase our cluster of renewable energy economic activity, but could also serve as a benefit to existing businesses and building owners looking for income streams that can pay for expansions and rehabilitations.
Next, I will offer a proposal to use grant funds to prepare a Holyoke Tourism Assessment and Expansion Plan.
If Boston’s bid for the 2024 Olympics succeeds, we all know the impact that could have for Holyoke. I believe the volleyball matches should be played here, where the sport was born. And the economic opportunity from hosting those matches goes without saying.
Further, such a Tourism Plan will help us prepare for the future Springfield casino. Whether you believe the MGM casino will benefit or harm Holyoke, it is clear that now is the time prepare for both scenarios. In the coming months, we must develop a clear action plan that will bolster Holyoke’s entertainment and hospitality offerings in the years ahead.
And finally, I will be submitting a capital funding budget this year that will include funding to design new infrastructure projects. Local funding is critical to the life cycle of projects, because it allows the administration to more effectively pursue funding from other sources.
Holyoke’s economic resurgence is real. We see the evidence. And we see what we can still do to keep moving in the right direction.
Less measurable, though no less important, has been a resurgence of civic pride. We have all had conversations with folks around town who are excited about the road we’re traveling—people who have lived here for decades, and people who have just planted their roots here. And the wisdom of our governing strategy has been to place Holyoke’s future in the hands of our people—to encourage people to feel a sense of ownership over our city and its future.
So, an important priority of my administration has been to give folks opportunities to show their pride. This year will be no exception. In spring of this year, you will start to see banners popping up around downtown that celebrate Holyoke’s rich history of culture, arts, and industry. The first phase will be on High Street and will feature images created by local artists.
And, of course, we are all excited for the revival of Celebrate Holyoke this summer. I applaud all of our volunteers who are helping bring back this much beloved event, August 21-23.
We are blessed in Holyoke to have citizens who care so deeply about our future. This is an important reason that community policing has been such a great success over the past four years: when our police department works with the community, the community comes together to promote public safety.
Community policing works because it builds trusting relations between the police and our residents. Strong, collaborative relationships between our police and the community they protect are essential to public safety, the stability of our community, and the integrity of our justice system.
And Holyokers from throughout the city—from Ward One to Ward Seven—want to know that they can enjoy their lives without fear of crime or violence.
That’s why community policing does more than develop relations between the police and the people they serve; it actually makes our community safer. Our police force deals with crime in a proactive way—identifying causes and conditions, being resourceful, and taking initiative. Chief Neiswanger understands that we can’t arrest our way to a safer future. A safer future relies on building community.
From 2013 to 2014, overall crime dropped by 14%. The drop we saw in violent crime is due, in no small part, to our department’s renewed efforts at taking illegal guns off the streets. Partnering with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, the Holyoke Police Department seized 70 illegal firearms in 2014—up from 26 in 2013.
The drop in crime is also a testament to the character of our officers. Community policing is tiring work. But our officers do it, each and every day, with empathy and integrity.
Nearly 40% of our police department is trained to deal with crisis intervention situations. Last year, Chief Neiswanger appropriated funding for a cultural sensitivity training. Our officers are trained to deescalate tense situations—to use their voices and their intelligence before resorting to force.
As recent events around the country have made clear, the fair and just treatment of all people is essential to the health of a community. Tensions can only linger beneath the surface for so long; suppressing tension is not the path to peace. True peace, as the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us, is the presence of justice.
As part of our continued efforts to form a safer and more just community, I recently announced the formation of a human rights advisory committee, whose job will be to make sure the voices of marginalized groups have a constant, persistent presence in City Hall.
Our police understand that they and Holyoke’s residents are on the same team—that they are partners in ensuring greater public safety. As we look to deepen these partnerships, I am certain that we will see more progress in the coming year.
The notion that our city works best when our citizens and our government are partners is true in all areas of our civic life. So, part of our work is to enhance the quality of that partnership. As part of this effort, we should acknowledge one area that remains desperately in need of reform—and that is the structure of our government.
A 21st century economy needs a 21st century city government—and for too long, we have accepted an antiquated government structure that functions less efficiently, less transparently, and less responsively than we all know it should. We can do better.
In the coming months, I will propose a detailed City Hall reorganization plan—a plan to reform government in a comprehensive way, designed in collaboration with department heads and staff.
For tonight, let us consider some areas of concern.
First, there are many too many cases of our city ordinances, passed by this very body, not being enforced. One reason for this problem is that departments with overlapping responsibilities struggle to communicate with each other, and address problems where they arise. Any restructuring of City Hall must include ways to streamline these operations and to ensure free and open communication between departments. We should remember that our work is always collaborative, and ultimately for the betterment of the city.
Second, we need to address the obstacles that entrepreneurs and business owners face in navigating our bureaucracy. Take, for example, people who try to register their business in Holyoke. Until recently, this process could entail having to fill out multi-page documents and visit seven different offices in different municipal buildings. I applaud City Clerk Brenna McGee for her leadership in addressing this issue. Her office, along with the Law Department, and the Office of Planning and Economic Development should be commended for their work in improving this process.
But, our government reorganization will do more than modify processes. For our government to achieve maximum efficiency, we must draw clear lines of ownership and accountability between our departments. The plan will help our departments clearly understand what they are responsible for, and give them the resources to fulfill their obligations in a timely manner.
The plan will help our government become one that can turn around applications in hours or days rather than weeks or months. It will help us more promptly address quality of life issues, including blight and urban decay. And it will guarantee easier and more cooperative interactions with our citizens.
Third, our financial functions are inefficient. I understand that the City of Holyoke is not a business—that the incentives of a government are necessarily different from those of a business. But, when it comes to our finances, some commonsense business practices should be adopted. Try to imagine a corporation whose CEO has no meaningful say in appointing members of their financial team, and very little ability to deal with daily operations in financial offices—that, in effect, is what we have.
That’s why I’m proposing that we create a Chief Financial Officer position, appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council, that would be in charge of our whole finance team. That will ensure greater accountability within the departments and improve our city’s financial health. Later this month, we will receive recommendations from the Division of Local services on how best to make this change, but we do not need to wait to start the process.
On your agenda tonight is a home rule petition that would remove the treasurer as an elected position, eventually allowing for the creation of a combined treasurer and collector position. Combining these positions is a good idea, and I support this petition. Ultimately, this issue will go before the voters, but in order to speed up the process, I encourage you to act on this issue tonight.
Another good idea that has been discussed for years, and has the support of Council President Jourdain and others, is adopting Chapter 40N, which would combine our water and sewer departments. This step will save the city money and help us finally tackle our rising sewer deficit.
Fourth, it’s time to put binding questions regarding term lengths and the size of this body before the voters. On your agenda tonight are three home rule petitions that look to increase the term length for mayor and City Council, and to reduce the number of city councilors. Whether you agree with these proposals or not, I encourage you to put these questions on the ballot. Let’s give the people of Holyoke time to weigh the pros and cons of these issues, and decide what will best serve their interests.
In addition to our reorganization plan, the city will be offering two initiatives that will make government more accessible and friendly. First, later this spring, we will have all frontline personnel attend four workshops on how to provide excellent customer service. Run through Holyoke Community College, it will provide resources to city workers in dealing with situations they encounter on a daily basis. And second, we will soon be signing a contract to enable online permitting. This step will offer our constituents the convenience of applying for permits outside of normal business hours.
I want to thank Council President Jourdain for his advocacy on the issue of modernizing government operations. We may not all agree on each particular proposal—but with Councilor Jourdain helping make the case, I am confident we can make our government better for everyone.
Reforming our government will help keep us on the right track. But, of course, no issue will be important to our future prosperity than our ability to educate our children.
I know the topic of education in Holyoke has weighed heavily on our minds in recent months. While we all agree our schools must improve, the prospect of receivership has many people concerned.
This issue is also near and dear to my heart. Like many of you, I am a graduate of the public schools. I have a niece and two nephews in the schools. And I wouldn’t be standing before you today if it weren’t for the great teachers I had, many of whom are still teaching today.
But we cannot ignore the overwhelming evidence that our schools need improvement. We have the lowest 3rd grade reading proficiency in the state, one of the highest dropout rates, and one of the lowest graduation rates.
This is not to say we haven’t made progress. In fact, what these last few years should tell us is that our schools are still capable of great things. Last year, the increase in our graduation rate was the highest of all Gateway Cities in the Commonwealth. Our teen pregnancy rate dropped by 32 percent between 2010 and 2012—the biggest reduction in the state.
We all know that poverty contributes to the challenges our teachers and students face. But poverty can no longer be an excuse for unacceptable outcomes. In Holyoke, we must work so that all kids can get the same quality education—whether they live in a homeless shelter or the Highlands. We can still do better, and, indeed, we must.
But, as we move forward, we must stop pointing fingers. It is time to share collective blame for our schools and accept collective responsibility to change them. I understand that the recent state review of our district has raised tensions. That is why, in all of my meetings with state officials, I have made the case for the hard work we are doing here, and the same is true of Dr. Paez, Dr. Hyry, and our public school teachers. I also joined my colleagues on the school committee last week in sending a letter to Department of Early and Secondary Education that makes the case to maintain local control.
While we cannot know what decision the commissioner will make, we should agree on some basic truths. For example, we must agree that the status quo will not do—that our city cannot tolerate hundreds of students leaving our schools each year, or the fact that only one in ten of our students can read proficiently in third grade. We must do better. Further, we should agree that local control matters, which is to say that a corporate takeover of our district, or a charter organization running our district, is not acceptable, either. Whatever the state decides, I will fight to ensure that our voices are heard, and that we can work collaboratively and cooperatively to change our schools. For the sake of our students, we need to pull together in common effort.
Pulling together in common effort; taking responsibility for our city’s future; building a legacy we can be proud of. That’s how our city has always thrived. That’s our history. And just as we were once an example to the rest of the nation, so we must be again to a new generation of American cities.
To do this will require a continued commitment to the agenda I’ve outlined tonight. But, more importantly, it will require our persistent commitment to the values we hold dear—fairness, equality, a respect for the dignity of all people. Because, in this new century, the strength of any community cannot be measured merely by its economic investment, or by its crime rate, or by its students’ test scores. The strength of our community must be measured by our ability to uphold human dignity, to protect and care for all of our citizens, and to open doors of opportunity to anyone who wants to contribute.
This is our city’s great, unfinished task—building a real community; bringing people who share a common dwelling together in common purpose.
While recent decades have surely tested our great city, we have emerged stronger. And with all that we’ve achieved in the past four years, I stand before you tonight filled with hope for our city.
Because I know the people of Holyoke—people in this room and all throughout our community. I know our character.
We are a city where folks with an idea put in the work of starting a business; where concerned citizens organize for peace; where, when a building falls, all of our City departments pull together to keep people safe; where a police officer will dive into a freezing river to save a life; where our teachers put in the extra effort for a student who needs them; where our elected officials can put politics aside to shape a promising future for us all.
That is who we are. And nobody knew this fact better, or believed it more deeply, than our beloved friend Jorge Neves.
For those of us in this room, Jorge Neves needs no introduction. But for those who might not have known him, Jorge was a man whose impact on our city is immeasurable. He moved from his native Portugal to Holyoke as a child back in 1976, when political unrest led his parents to seek a new life in the United States. Jorge grew up here. He attended our public schools, went to Bridgewater State University, and graduated from Suffolk University Law School in 1993—the same year he was the top vote recipient as a candidate for Holyoke’s City Council.
He was a Holyoker to the core—a true family man, a fixture at the local Y, and a mentor to many public servants, including me. He was laid to rest last month, at the young age of 46.
I’ve been thinking about Jorge quite a bit over the past few weeks—about what his friendship meant to me, and to so many of us, and what he might want for us now.
Jorge achieved great things in his 46 years. He dreamed big. He opened his heart to the people of this city, and he left a beautiful legacy of love and service.
But for all of his great achievements, Jorge always insisted that he was part of something larger than himself. Whenever Jorge talked about anything good in his life, he gave all the credit to his family, his city, and, especially, his wife Luanne, who is here with us tonight—along with his sister Luisa, his cousin Clara, and other members of the Neves family.
Such was his gratitude for the city he called home and for the people in his life that, when he ran for Council in 1993, he chose as his campaign slogan, “It’s time to give something back.”
Jorge understood that that’s what public service is ultimately about: giving something back. He understood that people of goodwill could disagree on important issues. Indeed, Jorge held or emceed events for many of us in this chamber who don’t always see eye-to-eye. No matter which side of an issue we were on, Jorge saw the good in each and every one of us.
Let us try to do the same—to see the good in one another; to remember that the work we do together matters far more than the politics of any given moment.
And if we do, I know we will do great things in the next year and beyond. We will give something back. And Holyoke will remain a city where people from around the country and world can come and build their lives—where a Portuguese kid can grow to touch the lives of everyone in this room, and leave this city better than he found it.
Thank you. Let’s go give something back.